Is 20 Years of the Big Issue Something To Shout About?

This September saw The Big Issue magazine ‘celebrate’ 20 years of trying to tackle homeless issues.

The Big Issue was started back in 1991 by Gordon Roddick (husband of Body Shop owner Anita) and John Bird (not the John Bird of TV comedy Bremner, Bird and Fortune) who was himself a victim of homelessness when young. Its initial aims were to help the homeless by allowing them to help themselves. The basic concept of the magazine is simple: a homeless person is given 5 copies to start for free. They sell these for £2 each and can then buy further copies from the magazine for £1 each, re-selling for £2 and keeping the difference. In time the vendor can eventually build up for themselves a small client base and earn reasonable enough money to eventually get themselves set up in a home of their own, thus ‘solving’ the homeless crisis one person at a time. For some this method indeed works and there have been many successful vendors over time. However as a wider solution to the housing and homeless crisis, this kind of work-for-your-supper thinking is really a very poor quality sticking plaster over a wide, gaping wound and is fundamentally flawed.

Homelessness is a complex issue. For every homeless person there is a raft of interrelated reasons why they may be in that situation. Some are simple: loss of housing through relationship breakdowns, inability to pay for housing, drink, drugs, mental health issues, abuse and domestic violence. For some, all they really need is a house or flat. For others, more complex social help is required from specialists perhaps in drink and drug rehabilitation, or social workers to support individuals through crises. In fairness to the Big Issue, they never set out to deal with these problems, although the later founded Big Issue Foundation has tried to expand its approach.

Many of the issues homeless people face are centred around their ability to pay for their accommodation and to maintain those payments. Whether buying or renting, housing takes a disproportionate amount of income and in recent years has sailed close to the maximum 30% as recommended by most financial experts as a percentage of income. These costs coupled with spiralling food and fuel expenditure, mean the ability to maintain housing is getting increasingly harder for many families. Loss of a job, reduction in working hours or wages can have a devastating impact and can often result in homelessness. Exact figures for homelessness are difficult to obtain due to the transient nature of the people involved, the various bodies doing research and the changing way the government classifies homelessness. However, as a rule of thumb, in times of economic downturn the number of homeless persons increases exponentially. No amount of charity, magazine sales or campaigning will alter the root cause of the problem and the profit driven nature of housing.

So in 20 years how has the Big Issue helped with solving the problems of homelessness? According to their own website:

“The Big Issue is a business solution to a social problem, demonstrating that an organisation can succeed whilst being simultaneously driven by commercial aims and social objectives. It has helped thousands of individuals to regain control of their lives and has simultaneously altered public perceptions of homeless people”(

No doubt on an individual basis the Big Issue has helped some of the thousands it has had contact with to be able to better their own situations, but in the bigger picture it, like so many other homeless charities, is unable to achieve anything of real and lasting value. There was a huge homeless problem 20 years ago in the UK and there is still one now. Unless capitalism is swept away, there will still be one in 20 years time.

Under capitalism, housing, like everything else, is a commodity to be bought and sold on the market. For those unable to afford it, homelessness is the only option unless bailed out by limited council and state help or charitable donations. These are not solving the problem, merely at best reducing some of its ill effects. Business has no interest in solving social problems, contrary to the statement by the Big Issue. Its goal, always, is profit. If housing was fairly distributed according to need rather than via a market, then the problem of homelessness would disappear and there would be no need for such ‘social entrepreneurship’ as lauded by the Big Issue and similar organisations.

A telling quote comes from John Bird himself:
“I am a self appointed grandee of the poor. I am one of them who got out and got into a position to help, so I will mollycoddle Lord Mandleson, Cameron, Blair, and Brown, anyone if it helps. I don’t want to read The Big Issue and read how miserable it is living under capitalism. I want to know what you’re going to do about it, how you’re going to dismantle it” (Independent, 5 September).

In socialism, a society based on people’s needs not profit, housing like everything else would be free and open to all. The masses of empty homes would not stay empty because people couldn’t afford to live in them anymore. Homelessness will be a thing of the past and consigned to history, and with it will be the well-intentioned but ultimately self-perpetuating charities. Hopefully in another 20 years there will be no need for a ‘celebration’ of the continuing need for charity.
David Humphries

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